Born Rich

Directed by Jamie Johnson

> > Nov 2004

Born Rich - Directed by Jamie Johnson
By James KeastThe title says it all, but this documentary is not about children of privilege whose parents were lawyers and doctors, and who went to private schools. Born Rich is about the kind of wealth that comes from having built America more than a century ago, the wealth that gets passed down not to children but to generations — the kind that will make one an insular weirdo, and that's exactly what Born Rich sets out to explore. One of the most fascinating elements about a documentary that chronicles not nation builders but their spoiled grandchildren is that the only way such a film would get made is if it got made from the inside by one of their own. So it has. First-time director Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, uses the access he has as a member of this particularly elusive and exclusive "tribe" to convince his private school mates and fellow travellers in wealth to open up for the camera, with some revealing results. There's a lot of variety in both the sources of wealth and reactions to it: some are royalty (a creepy Italian guy who is both German and Italian blueblood); some are first generation (the daughter of golfer Raymond Floyd); some own or will eventually own massive influential corporations (the son of the $20 billion Conde Nast publishing empire); some have little or nothing to do with the source of their wealth (children of gaming empires and shipping magnates). What they all share is an unspoken agreement that one does not talk about money. Ever. Particularly not to outsiders, not on camera, not in public. Okay, not at all. That underlying tension provides both the reluctance and release valve of this documentary. Their "coming out" stories — of the moment they realised the extent of their wealth, like when a school classmate found the family name on the list of Forbes' 400 wealthiest people — in many ways mirror other "minority" groups, and the sense of loneliness might be similar. Not unexpectedly, it's the Europeans and their "old money" that deal best with this position of privilege: one young man in particular has taken his life to be a legacy of long-standing privilege but also obligation to explore the arts, to not simply waste a life of leisure but to live it as an example to others. Most of the American kids waste it, and/or spend it wasted. It's not that they can't work or don't want to work, but the concept of meaningful labour seems elusive to them, and without that key element of self-definition, most of these young people seem sad and lost. Almost all of them have aspirations to make their own mark on the world, but now in their early 20s, qualified for nothing and needing nothing, they speak vaguely of work in the future, but seem to have little sense that the future is upon them. Watching Born Rich is in many ways like watching famous people from a completely unknown culture — the sense of self-importance is through the roof, but to outsiders, the reference points are all meaningless. Clearly these people are convinced of their status as "movers and shakers" but are also terrified of being judged in the harsh light of who they are themselves. Perhaps this is no simple life after all. Plus: commentaries by Johnson, producer Dirk Wittenborn and cast; deleted scenes. (Shout Factory/Sony)
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